New cosmogenic burial ages for Sterkfontein Member 2 Australopithecus and Member 5 Oldowan

Abstract

The cave infills at Sterkfontein contain one of the richest assemblages of Australopithecus fossils in the world, including the nearly complete skeleton StW 573 (‘Little Foot’)1,2,3,4 in its lower section, as well as early stone tools5,6,7 in higher sections. However, the chronology of the site remains controversial8,9,10,11,12,13,14 owing to the complex history of cave infilling. Much of the existing chronology based on uranium–lead dating10,11 and palaeomagnetic stratigraphy8,12 has recently been called into question by the recognition that dated flowstones fill cavities formed within previously cemented breccias and therefore do not form a stratigraphic sequence4,14. Earlier dating with cosmogenic nuclides9 suffered a high degree of uncertainty and has been questioned on grounds of sediment reworking10,11,13. Here we use isochron burial dating with cosmogenic aluminium-26 and beryllium-10 to show that the breccia containing StW 573 did not undergo significant reworking, and that it was deposited 3.67 ± 0.16 million years ago, far earlier than the 2.2 million year flowstones found within it10,11. The skeleton is thus coeval with early Australopithecus afarensis in eastern Africa15,16. We also date the earliest stone tools at Sterkfontein to 2.18 ± 0.21 million years ago, placing them in the Oldowan at a time similar to that found elsewhere in South Africa at Swartkans17 and Wonderwerk18.

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Figure 1: Stratigraphy and sample locations.
Figure 2: Skull of StW 573 (‘Little Foot’).
Figure 3: Burial dating isochron.

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Acknowledgements

This work results from a collaboration begun with T. C. Partridge (deceased). AMS development and measurements were funded by National Science Foundation EAR1153689 to M.W.C. and D.E.G. and National Science Foundation EAR0844151 to D.E.G. Major funding to R.J.G., K.K. and R.J.C. was received from the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST), which has supported research at Sterkfontein for 20 years. R.J.G. received bursary support from the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa. K.K. thanks the NRF (SA) for substantial funding (AOP 1207112551-82611 and AOP1207173196-82591) and Prof. Bruce Rubidge of the Evolutionary Studies Institute for additional support. Figure 1 includes modified material from J. Hum Evol. vol. 70, Bruxelles L. et al., Stratigraphic analysis of the Sterkfontein StW 573 Australopithecus skeleton and implications for its age, 36–48 (2014), with permission from Elsevier.

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Contributions

D.E.G. and R.J.G. conceived the project and performed laboratory work and data analysis. K.K. and R.J.C. supervised sample collection and interpretation of the dates. L.B. was responsible for mapping and interpretation of Member 2. M.W.C. supervised AMS measurements and methods development. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Darryl E. Granger.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Hand-picked samples.

Dark-coloured and light-coloured grains separated for samples M2 Dark and M2 Light. Each dish contains grains from the labelled original sample; M2 lower is sample ST 1, and M2 middle is ST 2. Light-coloured angular clasts in the top two dishes were combined into sample M2 Light, while the iron-stained and rounded clasts in the remaining dishes were combined into sample M2 Dark.

Extended Data Figure 2 Manuport.

Quartz manuport analysed from the Oldowan Infill. Maximum dimension is 67 mm. Sample recovered from Square Q57 spit 27′ 8′′–28′ 8′′.

Extended Data Table 1 Burial ages for Oldowan manuport

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Granger, D., Gibbon, R., Kuman, K. et al. New cosmogenic burial ages for Sterkfontein Member 2 Australopithecus and Member 5 Oldowan. Nature 522, 85–88 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14268

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